Glenn Beck, Chatterbot
An alternative history of Fox News.
In retrospect, it's easy to spot Coulter and Hannity as early chatbot models. Fox News algorithms for the expression of political opinion started out simple, and since the election of Barack Obama, they've become simpler still. (Example: Republican + deficit = good; Democrat + deficit = bad.) While these vary slightly from one bot to another, the imperative to mirror Fox viewers' inchoate rage against government, Democrats, and liberals keeps that variation limited to a fairly narrow band. What the Fox programmers didn't yet realize was that the predictability of these bots' opinions could be leavened by some unpredictability in their temperament. Only with Bill O'Reilly did Fox's computer scientists demonstrate that more plausibly human characteristics could be programmed in—in O'Reilly's case, by having O'Reilly explode with rage at random intervals and by programming O'Reilly to say "shut up" whenever a guest's response to a question failed to compute. If Coulter and Hannity were Fox 1.0, O'Reilly was Fox 2.0
Glenn Beck is Fox 3.0. The sheer variety of his tics—weeping, clowning, etc. (for a video sampler, click here)—make him appear more a performer than a news broadcaster. But the effect is to convince his few critical viewers that he's a human performer, thereby obscuring the reality that he isn't human at all.
Beck emits a steady stream of angry-white-male boilerplate. Here he is on March 19:
We are in trouble in America. We're in trouble because of the activities in Washington. They have taught us not to trust them. The Democrats have taught us not to trust the Republicans. The Republicans have taught us not to trust the Democrats, and so we didn't.
And then we realized, oh, my gosh, they're both lying to us. They don't actually stand for a single principle. So now what happens?
Our brief tour through the world of Artificial Intelligence has surely enabled you to spot the giveaway that this commentary is computer-generated. It lies in the high frequency of words expressing an exaggerated sense of disaffection: "trouble," "trust," "lying." Other words Beck favors: "socialism," "slavery," "destroy," and "confiscate." Clearly Fox News has some sort of Web crawler trolling hard-right Web sites to compile their newest bot's vocabulary. Another clue is Beck's face, which resembles the exaggeratedly pink and rounded human faces generated by Pixar's state-of-the-art computer animators. Pixar can design convincing-looking robots, but its people remain highly stylized. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Fox subcontracted to Pixar the visual component to its Beck software. Yet another clue is Beck's recent statement, in a New York Times profile, that he identifies with Howard Beale, the news anchor played by Peter Finch who cracks up on air in Network. In Beale's climactic speech in the film, he says: "We'll tell you any shit you want to hear." What better definition of what chatbots do best?
However they did it, my hat's off to Fox. For 59 years the world has waited for a machine that could pass the Turing test in some definitive, inarguable way. Fox News has done it. Let me be the first to nominate Roger Ailes for the unclaimed Loebner grand prize of $100,000. Can a Nobel be far behind?
[Update, May 8: A writer named Orland Outland informs me that he is working on a novel about artificial intelligence. "In the first chapter," he writes,
I posit that so much of what we hear, especially in right-wing politics, is so predictable that you could build a chatbot (called RUSHBOT in the book) who could essentially perform the same function. ...We hear so much about how "difficult" it will be for AI to replicate human speech, and yet, when so much of human speech is this simplistic and scripted, in fact it turns out to be easy to run up a database of Limbaughisms or Coulterisms or sales-repisms.
Outland is posting his novel-in-progress, Less Than A Person And More Than A Dog, on his Web site. To read the first two chapters, click here.]
[Update, May 11: A reader points out that George Orwell, as usual, got there first. From his celebrated 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language":
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Glenn Beck by Shaun Heasley/Getty Images.